Famous Oregon Coach And Star Protégé Are A Study In Contrasts

Jun 18, 2012

Forty-eight years have passed since an American has won an Olympic medal in the men's 10,000 meter run. The USA’s best hope for the upcoming London Games is Portland distance runner Galen Rupp.

You can watch Rupp attempt to qualify for the Olympics next Friday night. Rupp is coached by a running legend from the 1980s, Oregon marathoner Alberto Salazar. Correspondent Tom Banse reports Salazar is trying to help the younger runner avoid mistakes he made.

If you recognize Alberto Salazar's name, it might be from of his three-straight victories in the New York City Marathon -- including a world record setting performance in 1981.

A punishing training regime and injuries cut short Salazar's racing career. Too many years "over the redline," is how the hard-charging Cuban-American puts it in a newly published autobiography. Before he turned 50, Salazar nearly died of a heart attack.

"A lot of the book is not only about the mistakes I've made but the lessons I've learned from those mistakes," Salazar says. "I'm trying now with the great young athletes I'm coaching like Galen Rupp to make sure that I don't repeat those mistakes and they have longer and more successful careers than myself as a result."

Now meet that star protégé. He's no young Salazar. Galen Rupp exudes a calm and easy-going personality.

"I think we're a little different for sure," Rupp says. "He's definitely really intense. I think I'm probably a little more laid back than he is, just as a whole. But we get along great. We've got a lot of similar interests. We're both super-competitive. So, it's a good relationship."

Both men share a deep Catholic faith. Salazar discovered Rupp on a soccer field at Central Catholic High School in Portland. Rupp was just 14 at the time.

This was more than a decade ago. Back then, Salazar was coaching the school's cross-country team. He recognized enormous potential in the youngster. But to gain the trust of the Rupp family, he had to be honest about his own downfall.

"I think they're much more apt to listen to someone like myself telling them not to overtrain than someone that really doesn't know what it takes to train on this level," Salazar says.

Salazar had a careful, steady ascent in mind for Rupp. And that's how it's unfolded. To this day, the coach has not let Rupp run any race longer than a half-marathon. Rupp's strongest event, the 10K, is just over six miles. Rupp says he doesn't mind being held back sometimes.

"I'm still young. I'm only 25 right now," Rupp says. "So I still have a long ways to go. He still keeps that long-term picture in his head. It's something that is not easy to do for a lot of people. Especially, you get tempted by short-term success. He's always taken the long, gradual road with me."

It's a road Salazar didn't take himself. He was already burning out in his mid-20s.

Earlier this month, a mellower Salazar was trackside watching his stable of runners compete at the elite Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Salazar coaches other runners as part of the Nike Oregon Project. That's a long-term effort to break the dominance of Kenyans and Ethiopians in world-class distance running.

One of the other runners Salazar coaches is a Brit named Mo Farah. Farah and Rupp have become friends and training partners. They also race head-to-head, like here in Eugene.

Farah won this race. At the Olympics though, the Briton could potentially keep Oregon's Rupp off the podium and extend the USA's long medal drought. Rupp declines to predict the finish at this point.

"God willing, things will go really well," Rupp says. "I've got a great coach, I've got great teammates. The pieces are all in place. So hopefully, this might be the year that we can break that drought."

The patient grooming of Galen Rupp seems to be working. He enters the U.S. Olympic Trials as the American record holder in the 10K, just like his coach once was. Only Rupp aims for his career to last a lot longer.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network